The film Cocaine Bear hit theaters in February, and director Elizabeth Banks focuses the film on one specific aspect of a very real and complicated string of drug-smuggling-related events in the South. The film centers around a bear fueled by a murderous cocaine rage in the woods of north Georgia, yet many viewers may not know the true story of the events covered in the movie and their connections to East Tennessee and Kentucky.
The tale begins with Andrew Thornton II of Lexington, Kentucky. Thornton was a former narcotics officer and attorney turned drug smuggler. One of Thornton’s most intense runs from Colombia to America led not only to his own demise but to the cocaine overdose of a 175-pound American black bear. Thornton embarked from Monteria, Colombia with long-time friend Bill Leonard and 400 kilograms of cocaine aboard his small plane for the last flight of Thornton’s life in September 1985.
While flying over Florida, the men in the plane began to suspect that authorities were tracking them . Bundles of cocaine were tossed out of the plane as a precaution from this assumption– the first of several kilograms of coke to be spread into the world from this expedition. These bundles could have possibly included the several grams of cocaine that would eventually kill the famed black bear in the Chattahoochee Forest. Thornton came to the conclusion over Knoxville, Tennessee, that the plane needed to be abandoned to avoid authorities and any consequences. The plane was put on autopilot so the two men aboard the plane could plan their escape. Both Thornton and Leonard landed in Knoxville.
Once the two men jumped, the auto-piloted plane made its way to Clay County, North Carolina, where it crashed into Tusquitee Bald Mountain. Thornton’s parachute failed upon descent, possibly from the amount of cocaine and gear that was also on his person, which led to a fatal landing in the backyard of a south Knoxville home. Thornton was discovered by the homeowner on the morning of Sept. 11, 1985 with cash, weapons and several pounds of cocaine strapped to his body. These supplies were to be taken with the getaway driver, Thornton’s girlfriend Rebecca Sharp. Leonard’s parachute worked successfully and he was able to escape with Sharp in downtown Knoxville from any kind of association with the crime for several years, despite duffel bags of cocaine continuously being found even months later. Once Leonard confessed and told the entirety of his side of the story in 1990, no convictions were made.
As for the cocaine spread from Georgia to Kentucky, authorities were first able to connect Thornton’s body to the plane crash from a key for the plane that he carried on his person. This led to the search for more narcotics that may have been dropped from the plane. A total of 520 pounds of cocaine were recovered by December 1985. The search led to more than the discovery of cocaine, though.
In December, authorities discovered a deceased black bear in the mountains of Fannin County, Georgia near 40 scattered bags of clawed-open cocaine. While this is when Cocaine Bear depicts a 500-pound black bear beginning its murderous rampage through the woods of north Georgia, the true story comes to a close with an autopsy on the bear done by the state of Georgia. It was discovered that 3-4 grams of cocaine had entered the bear’s bloodstream, and it likely died a short time after from a heavy overdose which included, “cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, stroke and heart failure,” according to medical examiners.
The bear’s spirit, however, continues to live on to this day, and not only through cinema. Once examined, the famous bear was taxidermized and was first placed on display at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. During a wildfire scare, the bear mysteriously disappeared from the recreation area. Through the years, the taxidermized bear was reported to have been stolen and/or sold to many different locations such as a medicine shop, Waylon Jennings’s home in Las Vegas, and eventually the current residence of Cocaine Bear, Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky.
The bear is now displayed in the mall with a plaque that tells the story of Thornton, and is labeled, “COCAINE BEAR, AKA Pablo EskoBear.” The bear is available for visitation from anyone who wants to come see the creature whose story made it to Hollywood. Although Cocaine Bear met its tragic fate over 30 years ago, the story continues to bring attention to Lexington with the mall’s Cocaine Bear merchandise and selfie opportunities.